Corsets from different periods mold the body into very different shapes, which is why it’s important to wear the correct corset for the correct time period. My grandmother used to refer to undergarments as “foundations” and indeed, real corsets – the ones meant to change your shape – are exactly that. You can’t create the correct period effect with your costume without first having the right foundation.

More after the jump.This coming year I should be making a whole head-to-toe Elizabethan costume for portraying a servant in the Lord Mayor’s household. The first piece I will need, the first foundation, is the corset. I could skip it and go with a bodice that has enough structure to maintain the correct shape, but where’s the fun in that?

The only corset I currently own is a Victorian waist-cincher made from the Laughing Moon pattern. It has a front opening busk and back lacing. I find it much more comfortable around the hips than a properly fitted Elizabethan bodice. The later tends to dig into your waist since that’s where it stops on the sides and back. I once wore the waist-cincher under the bodice and, while the shapes weren’t completely compatible, found that it was more comfortable.

Elizabethan corsets were made to push the breasts up and everything else into a basic cone shape. Unlike later shapes, the waist was not well defined. These corsets could have tabs at the bottom, below the waist, which extend the corset below the waist and give some flexibility to the hip area. This would also redistribute weight and pressure down the hips some, which should make the tabbed version more comfortable than a non-tabbed one (or just a bodice).

The images below show a comparison of the two garments via pattern pieces. The Elizabethan one has the option of being front or back opening and is made from 3 pattern pieces that are cut as two pieces per side. The Victorian waist-cincher has 6 pieces per side. I’ve overlapped the pieces to allow for seams. Pieces are matched up alone the waist line. The earlier garment (on the bottom) is using the medium size. The latter garment (the top pieces) is a size 14 (which translates into more like an 8 in modern rack sizes). Note the huge differences in shapes on the back and side-front pieces.